Black and Blue: What’s Causing America’s Bruise?

By Stacy Moak, UAB Professor of Social Work

This article was originally published on the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy blog on June 19, 2020.

Discussions of police in everyday life have triggered strong reactions from citizens as long as we have had the concept of police. Arguments over whether they should wear uniforms, whether they should be paid, and whether they should carry weapons have all persisted throughout time and across multiple countries. The concept of the police in America was borrowed from the British system of having “beat cops” or officers who patrolled at the local level. In England, still today, these community officers do not carry weapons. The British police force was established in 1829 and employs the concept of police by consent, not by force. As a result, the general opinion is that arming the police sends the wrong message to citizens and creates more problems than it solves. Yet, in the US, officers cannot envision a police force that is not armed with firearms. Policing in America has evolved over time and developed into a punitive system of “enforcement” that has pushed the entire system away from community problem solvers and toward a militaristic mind set of reactions to certain situations, often without rational analysis of what is actually occurring. Thus, policing has evolved more toward fighting a war– the war on drugs, the war on poverty – in which police are the soldiers and citizens are the subjects. However, the evidence is clear that overuse of police as a form of social control has devastating consequences for the health of communities (Public Health Behind Bars, Robert Greifinger, 2007). Such over-policing leads directly and indirectly to destabilized communities and overall social injustice. Further, it creates a system in which activities of the poor and minorities are more highly policed and punished than activities of the wealthy or white majority. Communities that suffer the most from over-policing generally suffer from a host of other deprivations and become tangled in a web of instability. Once that occurs, perceptions of destabilized communities begin to shape the ways that people outside the community view persons who live in those communities. Persons from those communities are often portrayed as more violent, more aggressive, and less likely to respond to reason. These labels apply to everyone from that particular community, including children, and often follow those children as they enter school. Children from these communities are labeled trouble makers at very young ages (as young as 3 or 4) and are often pushed out of mainstream educational facilities. Because of interaction with the criminal justice systems, adults have trouble finding jobs and/or stable housing, and family dynamics are disrupted. A cycle of negative police/citizen interaction begins to occur because of overuse of punitive approaches to address social problems, and police officers are tasked with providing interventions across a wide array of social services more appropriate to social workers, school and marriage counselors, substance abuse counselors, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and general mechanic and car maintenance.

When police are the first responders to social problems, punishment is the response most often handed down. Punishment, enforcement, and restraint are the skills for which police receive most of their training. Examples of this problem can be noted across the life span, but are perhaps most easily demonstrated in adolescents. For example, white youth and minority youth participate in delinquency such as recreational drug use, underage drinking, skipping school, fighting, and other types of delinquency at similar rates. Self-report studies indicate that delinquency is almost universal as a part of adolescent development. However, black and brown youth are held in juvenile detention centers at 3 to 4 times the rate of their white counterparts. Their numbers continue to increase even when juvenile crime statistics drop. Part of the reason for the disproportionate numbers of youth in juvenile detention stems from the presence of police officers in schools. Because these youth are identified as more dangerous and less amenable to treatment, school-based police officers respond with punitive practices that work to remove them from school. Once removed from school, the only real intervention at the community level is the juvenile court. Most black and brown youth live in urban areas with larger public schools. More police officers are assigned to these schools; therefore, more poor children and children of color are victims of overusing police and courts for behaviors more appropriately handled by schools and parents. Overuse of punitive practices creates a school to prison pipeline that suspends and expels more minority youth from school than their white counterparts. Even when youth are “caught” for the same activity, the minority youth is more likely to be arrested, petitioned to juvenile court, and detained in a detention center which sets off an array of negative interactions and social stigma that is almost impossible to overcome. The school to prison pipeline creates generational disenfranchisement, poverty, and systematic oppression of entire communities.

Graphic of rates of drug use and sales by race next to graphic of drug-related arrests by race
Source: The Hamilton Project

But problems in school are not the only contributor to the overuse of police in society. Lack of adequate health care also works to ensure that poor people and people of color will go to prison instead of to mental health clinics or rehabilitation centers for substance abuse and mental health issues. Instead of having diagnoses that are recognized and treated, even at very young ages, people without adequate health insurance or preventative health care are labeled by the symptoms of their illnesses. As services shrink in the community, law enforcement is used as the social service delivery system for this group. Instead of citizens receiving counseling and accurate mental health diagnosis that could treat their health issues, they are arrested, incarcerated, and offered very few if any services. For a drug charge, a person with insurance will likely go to a rehab facility. A person without insurance will likely go to prison. Studies indicate that 20% of jail inmates and 15% of prison inmates suffer from major depression or psychosis and as many as 87% of those have comorbid substance abuse issues. Citizens without insurance in our society are more likely to have unresolved trauma, which is often exacerbated by interaction with poorly trained police officers. Those same individuals are more likely to be perceived as dangerous, more aggressive, and not amenable to treatment. As a result, they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be detained prior to trial, and more likely to be incarcerated. When they are eventually released (95% will return to communities) they are sent back to communities with little to no continuity care plan which almost insures that they will encounter the criminal justice system again.

So, what alternative police practices and systematic strategies could we envision that would work to dismantle this perpetual cycle of violence, trauma, and overall injustice that is levied disproportionately on poor and minority communities? First, I would propose that police agencies examine the role of police in everyday life and create policies that actually reflect those defined roles. The role of the police is “to protect and serve.” Let’s unpack that statement – to protect and serve – not to arrest, apprehend, serve as judge and juror, intimidate, harass, incarcerate, shoot, bully, or kill – protect and serve. Yet most of our emphasis in police departments across the US revolves around tactical weaponry, restraint techniques, defensive driving, and legal procedures of arrest that will lead to convictions. Perhaps refocusing training on de-escalation strategies, trauma informed care, and implicit bias could provide better understanding and more opportunities for officers to assist in resolving conflicts peacefully. Do police officers really need full armored SWAT gear? And military grade weaponry? When police posture defensively as if their role is to protect themselves against dangerous citizens (again as if they are soldiers and citizens are the subjects) the response from citizens is likely also to be defensive and reactionary. Beyond new recruits at the police academy, officers who have been on the force for long periods of time and serve as field training officers need the same training as new recruits on the above-mentioned issues. Many times, they work to undermine positive training received in police academies. If these more seasoned officers resist training, or refuse to comply with new protocols, they should be reassigned to departmental activities that do not require citizen interaction. We can no longer afford to have business as usual and rely on statements like, “that’s the way it has always been.” Agencies must be proactive in removing old ways of thinking and performing and replace them with more educated and better-informed practices that work to restore police-community relations. A merit system could be implemented that rewards positive behavior with pay incentives or merit toward promotions. Police should be treated as professionals, paid as professionals, and held accountable as professionals.

Photo of police officer in a school hallway
Source: Justice Policy Institute

Secondly, I would propose that we examine the services for which police are being used in place of other, more appropriate social service delivery specialists. For example, commissioned law enforcement officers are not the proper authority to handle adolescents in schools – especially when dollars spent to employ the police could be redirected to employ social workers and counselors to address the underlying causes of much adolescent behavior. The experiment with School Resource Officers (SROs) was intended to create trust among students and police where police would function in a counselor/educator role. However, the reality has been that schools have turned over general disciplinary actions as well as drug/alcohol enforcement provisions to SROs. They do not work as much in an education/counselor capacity as they do as the enforcer for a host of school-based rule infractions that lead to more kids being suspended, expelled, or processed in juvenile court. Instead of fostering healthy relationships with police and students, students do not trust them and try to avoid them. A better alternative seems to be to employ a school based social worker at each school instead of an SRO. One argument for SROs has been the prevalence of school shootings and the need for student safety. However, school shootings were not the original intent of SROs, and school shootings remain very rare occurrences. When these tragedies do occur, it is rarely an SRO who protects students or who intervenes during these instances, which makes school safety concerns an inadequate argument for placing police officers in schools. Their presence adds to the school to prison pipeline and works to create hostility between youth and police very early in life.  Zero tolerance policies should be replaced with restorative community policies within schools to teach negotiation strategies that students could actually use in future interactions. Dialogue about complex issues should be encouraged among students and opportunities should be seized to provide education around community health, community harm, and community restoration.

This conversation would not be complete without recognizing that the work of policing a community is stressful. Rarely do police officers receive adequate training for the job. Even more rarely do they receive counseling and support for their own trauma that they experience on the job. For example, one of the most stressful parts of law enforcement jobs is not the hostage negotiation that ends in a shoot-out; instead, it is responding to traffic accidents. Officers might retire from the police force without ever using their firearm, but the chances of them viewing a dead child in an overturned car after a crash are high. When officers’ trauma is not addressed, that trauma becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed. A normal response is to have a heightened sense of self-preservation – and every possible encounter with a citizen presents the possibility of a negative outcome. Some of the resources within police departments should be reinvested in the officers to provide training, support, and counseling that they need to be healthy community members both on and off the job. To complement these resources, the culture within the department must also change to promote positive mental health among officers. Currently the stigma of mental health issues as signs of weakness permeate police culture. Changing those views will take time, but the culture of health that is discussed in communities must also apply to police agencies throughout the US.

Graphic showing 85% of first responders have experienced mental health problems, graphic of mental health stigma at work
Source: University of Phoenix
Graphic showing rates of mental health stigma at work
Source: University of Phoenix

Finally, and probably the most inflammatory part of this post, we must have honest conversations about the systematic racial oppression in the US and the role that all systems of government have played in developing and keeping it in place. Minority groups are presented as more dangerous, more violent, more in need of police, and only responsive to force. Such portrayals are not accidental, but work specifically to detract from empathy that might otherwise be shown to them as fellow human beings. The scourge of racism is so deeply engrained in our justice systems in the US that even minority officers do not know how to discuss it, react to it, or work to dismantle it. The militarized hierarchy within police agencies causes a veil of silence among officers who fear reprimand if they are perceived as trouble makers, liberals, or sympathizers. Citizens have so little trust in the police, or the system of justice, that they are often victims without a voice. These are not characteristics of a free society, and they must be replaced with conversation, understanding, and a shared vision for what citizens want the police to do in their communities and how that will be accomplished. In the end, police officers are public servants, and their role is to protect and serve the community and every member of the community. For anyone who reads this and has an interest in taking a deeper dive into racism in the US, I would recommend three books to readThe Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum; and So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo.

A Human Rights Perspective on Solutions to the Opioid Crisis in America

My most recent article described an overview of the opioid addiction crisis from a human rights perspective. You can view it here. In this article, I attempt to explain the different solutions from medical professionals regarding opioid addiction and the racial and economic disparities that have arisen amongst the most successful solution.

There are two forms of treatment that most clinics can decide between: traditional counseling therapy with a focus on mental strength or using medication, such as buprenorphine and methadone, to combat addiction. Research has proven that without medication, people are twice as likely to die from an overdose. However, the traditional counseling methods have persisted across treatment centers. The Journal of Substance Abuse conducted a study that showed that between 2003 and 2010, of 50,000 opioid addiction patients on Medicaid, patients who had received counseling therapies were six times more likely to relapse than those who received methadone as treatment and four times more likely than those who received buprenorphine. The risk of overdoses is increased during the period of detoxification utilized by abstinence based programs because of a lack of tolerance.

A counseling session
Counseling. Source: Alan Cleaver. Creative Commons.

Opioid substitution has proven to reduce mortality. To avoid a misuse of buprenorphine and methadone, the two medications are tightly controlled by doctors. Buprenorphine is a drug that reduces the craving for opioids and reduces the chances of a fatal overdose overall. Suboxone, a compound of buprenorphine, is engineered to reduce the possibility of an overdose. However, using medication as treatment for addiction has only truly been utilized at a small number of walk-in clinics and has not been fully incorporated into the nation-wide health care system. In 2015, in the United States, 8-10% of treatment programs offered buprenorphine and methadone as substitution therapy. Even in this small number of programs, the method was often unsuccessful as the medicine was offered for too short of a period to be effective. The treatment is only provided in very regulated clinics and prescribers are limited to a maximum of 275 patients.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of doctor visits where the health professional prescribed buprenorphine greatly rose. Despite this, a research report found that of 13.4 million medical cases involving buprenorphine, there was no increase in prescriptions written for minority groups. Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, one of the authors of the study, reported that white populations are nearly 35 times more likely to have buprenorphine discussed in their visit than black populations. Accessibility and insurance ability are commonly cited as reasons why this disparity has occurred, especially as the majority of white patients paid for their treatment using cash or insurance whereas only 25% of visits were covered by Medicare or Medicaid. This is especially concerning when it is taken into consideration that the rise in the use of buprenorphine occurred at the same time that opioid overdose related deaths were rising significantly faster for black populations than for whites.

Representation of the cost of healthcare.
The cost of healthcare. Source: ImagesMoney. Creative Commons.

In many cities, opioid addiction treatment is segregated by income. Lower income patients find themselves needing to attend a clinic in order to receive treatment while more affluent patients are able to avoid the clinic and instead receive treatment from a doctor’s office where medicines can be prescribed. These clinic programs are federally funded and often covered by Medicaid. However, in order to receive treatment from the highly regulated clinics, patients must visit daily. Many patients commute for hours every day before waiting within the clinic to receive their life-saving medication. These patients, who are already part of a lower income bracket, are losing precious hours where they could be working or with their families. Work, childcare, families, and other related life events must revolve around the daily trip to the clinic. Some patients have described needing to turn down job offers. Because of this, methadone has earned the nickname, “liquid handcuffs.”

In order to prescribe buprenorphine, physicians are required to undergo a special form of training. Only 5% of physicians have participated in this training. The shortage of clinicians has resulted in the ability of physicians to demand cash payments in return for a prescription of buprenorphine. 40% of white patients paid cash while 35% relied on private insurance. Just 25% of these visits were covered and paid for by Medicaid and Medicare. These percentages highlight just how costly a lifesaving prescription can be for people of low income. Because of the racial disparities within the United States economy, the people who fall into this category tend to be of a minority group. Gentrification has also caused a problem within the clinic community as their buildings get bought out in favor of other businesses. In 2016 in New York City, 53% of participants in methadone programs were Latino and 23% were black, while 21% were white. Also, in 2016 more than 13,600 people in New York filled at least one prescription for Suboxone with nearly 80% of these 13,600 paid for the medication using private insurance.

2011 Protest against the War on Drugs
No More Drug War. Source: Neon Tommy. Creative Commons.

Buprenorphine was purposely introduced into a private market, intended only for those who could pay a high price. Therefore, the unequal distribution of the drug can be determined to be not accidental. Due to the government regulations surrounding the prescription of the drug and the training required for doctors, there are too few doctors actually allowed to prescribe the medication. Those who can often do not accept insurance for their services as demand is so high and they can make more of a profit. Insurance will pay for the actual drug, but patients must pay for the doctor out of pocket.

A permanent stigma surrounding methadone has developed, hailing from the War on Drugs days in the 1960s. Racially charged stereotypes regarding addiction have fueled this stigma which has in turn caused lawmakers to be reluctant in passing legislation that would make the drug more accessible to underprivileged populations. However, this would be the push the community desperately needs. Medicines like buprenorphine and methadone need to be significantly more accessible, both for patients and doctors alike. They need to be included in more clinics while therapy based solely on mental counseling should be phased out from the common addiction treatment centers. In order to close the racial and economic disparities within this crisis, it is important to first recognize them. Once that has been done, our communities need to take direct action that will result in a positive change.

A Human Rights Perspective on the Opioid Crisis in America

Pills
Pills. Source: Jamie. Creative Commons.

The opioid crisis in the United States is not something I often hear about in the news nowadays. Or maybe it is so often in the news that the title fades into the background amongst the news about politics. However, the opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States, and it has affected them for years. Human rights concerns connected to the epidemic have begun to grow in recent years as controversies regarding the United States health care system and law enforcement systems have come to light.

The crisis began with the expansion of opioids for medical purposes in the 1990s. The initial goal with opioids was to treat pain but the drugs soon became exploited by pharmaceutical companies eager to increase their profit revenue [1]. Before the addictive and harmful properties of opioids became known both to the public and to healthcare professionals, prescriptions for opioid medications increased rapidly across the country.

The introduction of extended-release oxycodone in 1996 along with claims by the manufacturers that it was less addictive and effective for up to 12 hours was a major catalyst for the epidemic. There are three described waves of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. The first wave began with an increase in the prescription of opioids, increasing since at least 1999. The second wave included overdose deaths involving heroin, the increase beginning in 2010. The third wave included an increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) in 2013.

Hospital
Hospital. Source: Marissa Anderson. Creative Commons.

The first reaction to the opioid crisis was to limit the number of prescriptions in the market. However, this drove many to use the less expensive and more accessible street heroin. Cheaper and stronger opioids kept reappearing on the market, leading to an accelerated rate of fatal overdoses. Most addictions start with diverted supplies instead of among doctors’ patients. This was the case with heroin, which causes 4% of those who were using prescription opioids to switch to heroin. While 4% seems like a small percentage, 4% of the large number of people taking opioid pills is actually very large and enough to exacerbate the crisis [2]. In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. Over 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses and 10.3 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2018. In 2017, more than 70,200 people died from drug overdoses. Of those 70,200, around 68% involved opioids.

White Americans make up roughly 80 percent of opioid overdose victims. The attention of the coverage of the opioid crisis has primarily centered on white Americans, pushing aside the attention on minorities affected by the crisis. Minorities made up 20 percent of opioid related deaths in July of 2019, but that number is growing. The crisis has highlighted the racial disparities in the US healthcare system as many experts believe that the number of opioid related deaths in minority populations would be greater if minorities had access to the same level of health care as white Americans. It is known that people of color have had a significant lack of access to the American healthcare system throughout history and throughout the recent years. This disparity lowers the probability that non-whites in American would be prescribed opioids and thus lowers the chance that the population would suffer fatal overdoses. Despite the low death rates due to the exclusions within the health care system, the abuse of opioids is still abundant in communities of color. Scientists have witnessed a doubling of overdose death rates among African Americans, a factor that is being overshadowed by the media and societal focus on the death rates of whites.

Police
Police Officer. Source: G20 Voice. Creative Commons.

The law enforcement system has failed minorities in the opioid crisis as well. The War on Drugs, an attempt at cracking down on the opioid epidemic, has disproportionately affected African American communities across the United States. Studies have shown that law enforcement officials target black communities for drug violations significantly more than they target white communities. While drug use is similar between white communities and black communities, members of the black community are 13 times more likely to be arrested for buying and using drugs. In 2013, black and Hispanic populations represented 29 percent of the entire United States population. Despite this, the number of black and Hispanic prisoners arrested for drug related charges dominated that of whites. Not only is this true, but the United States Sentencing Commission also released a report stating that black prisoners receive longer sentences than white prisoners, despite both groups being convicted of similar weighted crimes.

The opioid crisis has hurt millions of people and families across the United States, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Despite this, the national attention has primarily focused on how the crisis has affected the white population. It is important to focus not only on how the opioid crisis has affected minorities, but also how the health care and law enforcement systems have responded to the opioid crisis in minority groups. The disparities within these systems must be fixed in order to provide an equal treatment of all groups.

[1] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

[2] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.

Juneteenth 2020: Celebrating the Past, Fighting for a Better Future

Juneteenth in yellow, black, red and green with black power fist
Source: Yahoo Images

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

What is Juneteenth?

Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the U.S. government made little effort to enforce the executive order, allowing Texas and other Southern states to uphold the institution of slavery for two and a half years after it was declared illegal. It was not until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the news of freedom and the end of the Civil War reached the enslaved people there. Alternatively called “Freedom Day,” “Emancipation Day,” and “Cel-Liberation Day,” African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s.

History

In the decades following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Juneteenth celebrations grew in size and popularity. Some formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants made pilgrimages back to Galveston to celebrate the holiday. Early celebrations often included a ritual in which revelers tossed ragged garments that enslaved people would have been forced to wear into the river and adorned themselves in fancy clothes taken from their former plantations. In 1872, a group of African-Americans ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park as a place to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The festivities typically involved fishing, barbecue, rodeos, baseball, and prayer services.

In the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations declined, as White employers did not recognize the holiday and would not let Black people off work if the holiday fell during the work week. Educational text books for students marked the official end of slavery as January 1, 1863, without mentioning its continuance through the end of the war. American Independence Day was celebrated on July 4, and Juneteenth went largely under the radar. Celebrations were revived in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and cities across the country reinstated the festivities. Through the tireless efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Other states are following his lead. In fact, 45 states and the District of Columbia have either made Juneteenth a state holiday or an official day of observance; however, it is not yet a national holiday. This year, several corporations, including Target, Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have announced that June 19 will be a paid holiday for their employees.

Protest sign reads "End White Silence. Black Lives Matter"
Source: Creative Commons

The Struggle Continues

As we celebrate the official end of institutionalized slavery, it is important to remember that the struggle for true freedom and equality for African-Americans is far from over. As the country is waking up to the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Juneteenth celebrations are expected to be particularly festive and well-attended this year. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and countless other victims of anti-Black violence, there is a renewed sense of urgency and activism around the Black Lives Matter movement. Massive protests are happening all over the country with hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. In order to truly understand and participate in Juneteenth celebrations, it is important to remember the horrors of slavery, the extreme violence inflicted on Black people in the years following liberation, and how these legacies continue to plague our society. In anticipation of Juneteenth, the Equal Justice Initiative has released a new report – Reconstruction in America – describing the various ways in which White people and the State invented new forms of slavery, perpetuated anti-Black sentiment and justified violence and oppression. As Bryan Stevenson aptly reminds us, “Slavery did not end in 1865, it just evolved.” Today, Black Americans still do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights as White people, as they continue to experience lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration, and unequal justice disproportionately to their White counterparts.

While Juneteenth in years past has focused on celebrating the advances that Black people have made in the United States, this year is expected to center around a call to action. For White people who want to show their support, this includes showing up for the causes of anti-racism and equal justice, understanding the structural and institutional underpinnings of white supremacy and white superiority, exploring their own complicity in upholding a racist social order, and using their privilege and agency to take actionable steps to dismantle racism, both in their personal lives and on an policy level.

History is calling the future from the streets of protest.

What choice will we make?

What world will we create?

What will we be?

There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist”

– Ibram X. Kendi

To learn how to build an anti-racist world, watch Ibram X. Kendi’s inspiring TED talk.

Juneteenth in Birmingham

Juneteenth festivities will be held in Kelly Ingram Park on Friday, June 19, starting at noon. Make sure to drive down First Avenue South to see the freshly painted Black Lives Matter street writing commissioned by the city.

The Fiasco between Africans and African-Americans

A multi-cultural Image
In unity lies our strength.                          Source: Yahoo Image

For a long period of time, there has been a long-existing history of an unfathomable and a silently raging rift between Africans and African-Americans or “Afro-Americans,” as some now refer. It should be noted that the relationship between these two races can never be erased or forgotten even though there seems to be a discouraging high-level of historical ignorance or lack of in-depth understanding, especially amongst the newer generations of both races. The connection between Africans and African-Americans goes quite a long way prior to the era of slavery, which I believe warrants a brief trip down memory lane to refresh some existing knowledge on this subject.

We begin by looking at the words of Audrey Smedley, who believes race or ideas about the difference in human color was developed during the era of African slavery. He believed up until the 18th century, Africans were generally positive people who engaged mostly in farming and cattle breeding. They had industries, arts and crafts, commerce and an existing form of government. After invading Africa, the Europeans realized Africans were better farmers and laborers, and immune to several diseases, which were perfect attributes in high demand within the colonialist world at the time. The colonists understood they needed the prowess and strength of Africans to meet their demands and as such, they developed the idea of transporting them across Europe and America, which was then referred to as the ‘New-World’, knowing they would have no means of escape or return.

According to the UShistory website, the Portuguese began the first slave trade agreement in 1472, which saw an influx of over 11 million Africans into America and across a few European nations as slaves. African slave trading became a lucrative business avenue amongst the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, and after North America was colonized by Europeans, there were vast lands in dire need of labor which led to the purchase of the first permanent African slaves from Dutch in 1619. Due to their physicality and agricultural abilities, the slaves proved to be highly productive on the farms where they mostly cultivated cash crops ranging from sugar, rice and tobacco. This went on for decades until the anti-slavery movement began which subsequently led to the Civil War in 1861, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, and an adoption of the 13th Amendment of the constitution in 1865 which outlawed all slave trade practices.

After the abolition of slave trade, issues of race got more intensified due to the non-acceptance of black people and has since become the central point of human attention, interaction and relationship.  It constituted the major form of human identity, a discouraging phenomenon that still gallantly exist in our world today. The creation and addition of a new race in form of Africa-America started a new chapter in human existence and history, which has led to a whole new level of feisty societal restructuring, rebalancing and rearrangements till date. Although whenever issues relating to racial differences arise, most people would most likely always refer to the forever existing tensed-filled relationship between African-Americans and the White race, but not so many would consider the possibility of any discord between other races, most especially Africans and African-Americans. To this end, I will be explaining a few reasons for the existing rift between Africans and African-Americans.

An image distinguishing between an African look from an african-american
Two continents fussed in one face           Source: Yahoo Image

The first reason to consider is the comparison debate between Africans and African-Americans, about who have suffered or continuously suffers the most. We begin by considering the latter’s historical slavery struggles which has obviously spilled over and transformed into the present-day inequality and inequity they are continuously forced to endure. History clearly made us realize the dehumanizing and disheartening low-level of inhumane treatments and conditions they had to go through before the abolition of slavery, and it is no longer news that the present American structure and system is continuously finessed to favor Caucasians who are majority over the minority blacks. With this understanding, some African-Americans always see African immigrants as opportunist who are profiting from their struggles despite not having shared in their pains or experienced  the horrible and derogatory racial discriminations like they did, which is a reason for their mutual relationship with White Americans. They believe Africans do not share in their ideology and are unwilling to participate in their political and civil rights movements.

On the other hand, Africans continuously grieve their pathetic level of underdevelopment which evidence suggest came as a result of the European invasion. As earlier stated, the entire African continent was developing at a steady pace but lost the plot when valuable human and material resources were taken by the colonialists. According to Nathan Nunn, slavery is the major factor for Africa’s underdevelopment till date; a phenomenon which has created ethnic fractionalization and undermined the effectiveness of several African nations. Recent studies suggest Africa’s 72% average income gap with the rest of the world would not have existed if not for slave trade. He believes the reason for the continent’s poor economic performance is due to the effect of slave trade and colonialism which has led to the endless poverty and incessant conflict, poor leadership, lack of basic social amenities and infrastructure, over dependency on foreign aid, poor health and educational facilities, amongst other challenges. It also affects the present cultural and social outcomes of the continent responsible for the present ethnic division, trust concerns, HIV prevalence, ethno-religious differences, and the high rate of polygyny (i.e. a practice of men having multiple wives) amongst other factors that continuously push the continent aback.

Another reason to consider is the trust issues that exits between the two races. So many African-Americans have some misconceptions that Africans cannot be trusted due to their willingness in allowing their fellow brothers and sisters be taken or sold into slavery, while some perceive them to be highly promiscuous due to the high rate of polygyny in the region. To point out the fallacy with the former, studies have revealed that majority of African slaves were captured through acts of kidnappings, raids and warfare, and through judicial processes, while only a few were literally sold by their relatives or friends as slaves. To address the latter, several studies have identified the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the major factor for the high prevalence of polygyny because only men were initially captured and sold as slaves across America which consequently resulted in the decrease amongst the male population and further tilted the sex ratio in many African nations most especially within West and East Africa.

Furthermore on the factors to consider, there is a wide belief or notion amongst Africans about African-Americans misusing their available opportunities despite enduring numerous challenges and difficulties. It is important to note that Africans alongside other races also, share in the belief that America is a land of dreams and opportunities and will always be a dream destination for many. For Africans, one major reason why they migrate to the U.S. is centered around education due to the outstanding level of human and material resources invested in this sector. As widely known, education remains one of the best and golden ticket to living a better life as individuals, which also helps improve the socio-economic growth and development of the community. Another reason why Africans migrate to the U.S. is because of the availability of several decent job opportunities for both legal and undocumented immigrants. By either migrating for job purposes or education, they remain great opportunities that most likely guarantees any individual to live a long, healthy and happy life.

Image of Women dressed in African Attires during an event
Diversity should be celebrated not discriminated Source: Yahoo Image

On the other hand, some African-Americans blame the continuous influx of African immigrants into the U.S. to have negatively impacted the number of jobs that is available to them. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the early immigrant influx into the U.S. between 1980-2000 resulted in 20% to 60% wages decline, 25% employment decline, and 10% rise in incarceration rates among blacks with high school education or less. Based on these statistics, it is understandable to see the plights and frustrations amongst African-American populations, but the increase in the incarceration rates could also be attributed to the heavy trafficking of crack cocaine within black communities which caused the police to enact and enforce tougher sentencing laws and subsequently resulting in the incarceration of one-quarter of low-skilled black men.

On a light note, the United States Census Bureau in June 2019, confirmed that about 13 million workers have more than one job, while a report by CNBC on February 2019, shows U.S. employers posted the most open jobs of about 7.3 million which was a valid evidence that the U.S. job market is actually strong. Also, according to the political typology survey 2020, 61% supports the notion for the country to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with Whites, 65% believe immigrants hard work and talents have strengthened the country tremendously, 61% believe most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard, while over 55% believe blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.

NFL Star dressed in an African attire
Let’s Save our Future                               Source: Yahoo Image

Based on this knowledge, it aches the heart to see Africans and African-Americans alongside other races have such a resentful, unfriendly and defensive relationship against one another till date. It is true we have all gone through various levels of hardship, turmoil, and suffering which serves as reasons we continuously hold deep grudges against others, but its high time we looked beyond and move on. In as much as we feel justified about our present bitterness or anger towards certain people or races due to our past experiences, we should remember the adage which says, “Two wrongs can never make a right”. It is almost certain that whenever we cloud our minds with negative judgements before relating with others, we would most likely find a way to justify our negative thoughts about them irrespective of the outcome, as such, we all should always set aside our presumptions, perceptions and judgements when relating with others and it is only through this means, can we look beyond our racial differences and respect each other as humans. It is a shame we are still regressing in this 21st century but we can begin by remembering our past, but not dwell on them because when we do, we are prone to live our everyday lives on them, and history has made us to understand that decisions we make in anger or frustration are those that will take us aback or hurt us for a long time.

 

STD Rates Among the Poor and Homeless in Alabama

by Kelsey Johnson (guest blogger)

Picture of a homeless shelter with people standing around and lying down, waiting for a meal and a bed
Source: Yahoo Images

As of 2018, approximately 38.1 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line. Furthermore, on a given night, over 550,000 people experienced homelessness. 

Of those numbers, more than 800,000 Alabama residents live in poverty, making it the sixth poorest state in the U.S. Approximately 3,434 people experience homelessness in Alabama on a given night. 

Poverty and a lack of adequate housing are considered human rights violations, as they interfere significantly with an individual’s ability to live safely and with dignity. For people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, these situations impact all aspects of their lives, especially their physical health.

One way that these health issues manifest is in the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS among these populations. Overall, rates of STDs, particularly chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, are at an all-time high in the U.S., according to a 2019 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2017-18, there were nearly 2.5 million total reported cases of the three STDs, including over 1.7 million cases of chlamydia, 583,405 cases of gonorrhea, and 115,045 cases of syphilis. 

Two urban areas in Alabama, Montgomery and Birmingham, are among the top 20 U.S. cities reporting the highest rates of STDs, including HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Mobile and Huntsville also ranked in the top 100. Alabama has the fourth highest rate of gonorrhea infections in the country. Additionally, as of 2016, there were 12,643 people in Alabama living with HIV. 

While the CDC report examined STD prevalence among various demographics, it did not focus on STD rates among low-income or homeless populations. However, a literature review published in 2018 in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases found that STD prevalence ranged from 2.1% to 52.5% among the homeless adult population. 

This study also identified many of the factors that increase the risks of contracting an STD among homeless individuals. A number of these risk factors also apply to individuals living in poverty, even if they have stable housing. Additional studies offer more insight into the recent rise in STD cases, as well as recommendations for how to decrease their spread among all populations.

Factors contributing to STD prevalence among low-income and homeless populations 

There are several factors that contribute to the prevalence of STDs in low-incomes and homeless communities, including lack of access to affordable prevention and treatment options; lack of comprehensive sex education; the comorbidity of issues like mental illness or substance abuse, and the stigma surrounding STDs. 

According to a 2019 report by the National Coalition of STD Directors, “…poverty is both a cause of infection, and a barrier to the ability to seek care. Poorer populations are less likely to receive appropriate sexual health education, suffer higher rates of substance abuse, and may have more trouble accessing sexual health services.”

Poor or homeless individuals are less likely to have health insurance, or resources to pay for out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Many individuals living in southern states, including Alabama, fall into what is known as the coverage gap, meaning they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to pay for health insurance.

Even if individuals have health insurance, their coverage may be limited to certain providers or services, and may exclude STD testing or treatment. The time and money it takes to travel to healthcare facilities, especially in predominantly rural states like Alabama, also present a barrier to care, even for insured individuals. 

Additionally, budget cuts have forced many STD clinics to close or reduce their services. The loss of these clinics is harmful because not only do they often provide STD testing and treatment on a sliding fee scale, they are staffed by individuals with specialized knowledge in diagnosing and treating STDs.  

The other primary factor in higher STD rates is a lack of comprehensive sex education. As the NCSD report states, “States typically define the broad parameters of sexual health education in public schools. Not surprisingly, these parameters vary widely among states.” Studies show a correalation between insufficient sex education and higher STD rates. Kathie Hiers, the CEO of AIDS Alabama, says the state represents a “perfect storm” for the spread of AIDS and other STDs, in part because of its “poor educational systems that often ignore sexual health.”

This lack of education about STDs also perpetuates the stigma surrounding them, which prevents people from seeking treatment, according to Hiers. Other conditions that are prevalent among poor and homeless populations, including mental illness, incarceration history, and intravenous drug use, also make individuals more susceptible to STDs, and present barriers to seeking treatment.

How to prevent the spread of STDs among low-income and homeless populations

The studies and experts cited in this post offer several recommendations for steps that can be taken, nationwide and in individual states, to decrease the spread of STDs among low-income and homeless populations, including: 

  • Removing financial barriers to healthcare, including adopting Medicaid expansion. The Alabama Hospital Association estimates that by adopting Medicaid expansion, an additional 300,000 residents would be eligible for health insurance.
  • Increasing or restoring funding to public health agencies and STD clinics that provide free or low-cost testing and treatment.
  • Improving access to healthcare facilities through transportation and operating on evenings and weekends.
  • Providing comprehensive sex education in schools. In 2019, the Alabama House of Representatives failed to address a bill that would have made the state’s sex education curriculum more scientifically and medically accurate. The bill would have updated the curriculum’s language to address “sexually transmitted diseases” as “sexually transmitted infections,” which is considered less stigmatizing.
  • Expanding resources to support homeless individuals, and increasing their access to stable housing. A 2016 report by the Homelessness in Alabama Project offered several specific recommendations for addressing homelessness in Alabama.

Additional Resources

Pigmented Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19

Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.

Racial/ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to reduced access of health services and the psychosocial stressors of discrimination which is why some argue that racism is a fundamental cause of health inequalities. These disparities are largely due to the disadvantaged economic and social conditions commonly experienced by many racial/ethnic minorities. Compared to Whites, racial/ethnic minorities are more likely reside in densely populated areas, live further from grocery stores and medical facilities, represent multi-generational homes, and be incarcerated. Additionally, racial/ethnic minorities disproportionately represent essential worker industries and have limited paid sick live. As a result, the living and working conditions for many racial/ethnic minorities put them at odds with threat of COVID-19.

Vestiges: Black American Health Disparities

Black Americans have disproportionate rates of COVID-19-related risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. As such, they are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 in many counties across the U.S. These disparities are even more alarming at the state-level. For example, in Georgia, 83% of all COVID-19 cases linked to a hospitalization were Black patients despite the community only representing a third of the state’s population. Also, in Michigan, Blacks represent 14% of the state’s population but 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. On a national level, Blacks (13% of the total population) represent 33% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, while Whites (60% of the total population) represent 45% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.

Segmented: Latino American Health Disparities

Many Latinos in the U.S. have immigrant status and work in high-risk essential industries such as agriculture, food service, and health care. This largely explains why Latinos are up to three times more likely than Whites to be infected and hospitalized by COVID-19. These striking outcomes are compounded when considering that Latinos face other disproportionate hurdles such as inadequate communication resources and language barriers. Also, Latinos often socialize in “mixed status” immigrant networks which means those who are undocumented are not eligible for COVID-19 stimulus funding.

A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.

Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities

Often overlooked in the racial health disparities conversation are outcomes for Native Americans. Some state health departments (e.g., Texas) classify Native American COVID-19 statistics as “other” which ultimately dismisses the unique health profile of this underserved population. However, early statistics from Arizona and New Mexico suggest Native Americans represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths and cases, respectively. Reports from health authorities in Navajo Nation, which is comprised of areas in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, indicate this community’s confirmed COVID-19 prevalence rate is the highest in the country, although they have a test rate higher than most U.S. states.

In March, the Seattle Indian Health Board requested medical supplies from local health authorities but instead received body bags and toe tags. This callous response demonstrates that local authorities in Washington state have actively devalued the lives of Native Americans during these trying times. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota have responded to their state’s negligence by refusing to end COVID-19 highways checkpoints across tribal land. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier argues that the checkpoints are the best thing the tribe has to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because they are only equipped with an eight-bed facility for its 12,000 inhabitants. The nearest critical care facility is three hours away.

Also overlooked are COVID-19 outcomes among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Early reports from California, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington indicate that NHPI have higher rates of COVID-19 when compared to other ethnic groups. A precursor to these outcomes is that NHPI have some of the highest rates of chronic disease which puts this demographic at higher risk of COVID-19. Much like other racial/ethnic minority groups, NHPI are more likely to work in the essential workforce and live in multi-generational households. Thus, these conditions allow COVID-19 to proliferate among NHPI enclaves.

Person with a protective mask preparing food with a front door sign that reads "No Mask, No Entry".
Thank you essential workers! Source: spurekar, Creative Commons

Health and Human Rights

Health is argued to be a fundamental human right. Ways this can be achieved is through creating greater access to safe drinking water, functioning sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, and safe conditions in the workplace and schools. As such, health exists well outside the confines of the typical health care setting. However, the U.S. has yet to officially ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which ultimately prevents the government from being held accountable for the socioecological influences that generate health disparities across racial/ethnic minority groups.

These health disparities are not debatable and even acknowledged by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In response, national efforts, state-level policies, and public health programs have successfully reduced these disparities but have only made modest progress. Thus, comprehensive, systemic, and coordinated strategies must be implemented to achieve health equity. Although solving this daunting task cannot achieved by the U.S. government alone. It must also incorporate non-profit and philanthropic on-the-ground efforts already seeking this goal as well as greater public awareness about the impact social and economic policies have on racial/ethnic health disparities.

Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.

Outside the Frame: Where is the Native Story in American Art?

Painting of a green landscape with the sun shining down.
Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania. Source: The Met, Creative Commons

On Monday, March 9th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside College of Arts & Sciences and Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) to present a panel discussion with Dr. Deidra Suwanee (Director/Tribal Archivist – Poarch Band of Creek Indians), Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter (Director – Institute for Human Rights, UAB), Oakleigh Pinson (Guest Co-Curator – Focus IV Exhibition, AEIVA), and moderator John Fields (Senior Director – AEIVA). During their discussion, they addressed the Native erasure from American art and pathways to greater representation.

The discussion began with mention of Manifest Destiny, which were the events that led to the removal of Natives throughout North America. This effort was influenced by the ‘doctrine of discovery’ that painted non-Christians as pagans and, thus, targets of oppression. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 affected tribes throughout the Southeast, namely the Poarch Creek Indians who are the only federally recognized Native tribe in the state of Alabama.

Thus, many works of art in U.S. museums do not include depictions of Natives. In contrast, many paintings of the American frontier include landscapes without people, although sometimes incorporating wildlife, which conveys the message that this land was simply there for the taking. These portrayals also hide behind the altered and destroyed scared sites that were once home to millions of Natives.

Woman with a ceremonial indigenous dress presents artwork as onlookers listen.
Dr. Suwanee presenting art to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Such treatment has resulted in harsh living conditions where nearly a quarter of the U.S. Native population reside on tribal lands riddled with unemployment, inadequate housing, and limited facilities. These conditions serve as a harvest ground for poor access to resources that translate to health disparities related to heart disease, suicide, tuberculosis, etc. Native women are particularly at-risk in these harsh conditions because thousands every year go missing or are found murdered, thus inspiring the #AmINext awareness campaign in Canada.

During the Q&A segment, an audience member asked if this type of art could be considered propaganda. Dr. Suwanee suggested that suppression of art is a red flag because it limits expression, although she then claimed that art can also be created to facilitate social change. The conversation then evolved into a discussion about film depictions of Natives and the involvement of indigenous peoples in the United Nations. These sentiments centered on the general theme that Native representation is not only missing in art but also popular culture and politics.

Ultimately, the erasure of Native perspectives whitewashes what is to be told and understood. As such, it is imperative these wrongs are corrected through fair representation of Natives in the media and political arena. Recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples not only brings us closer to the full realization of human rights but also prevents history from painting with a broad brush.

Nathaniel Woods and Alabama’s Broken Justice System

As the world is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and the constant inundation of new cases and increasing death rates, I wanted to call your attention to an important event that has largely been overlooked in the midst of the chaos. On March 5th, 2020, a man by the name of Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama via lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. The 43 year old Woods was convicted because of his role in the fatal deaths of three Birmingham, Alabama police officers in 2004. Two entities could have stepped in to stop the execution: The Supreme Court and the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. The Supreme Court did delay the execution for three hours, but Kay Ivey refused to step in stating that she believed justice must be served in the name of the law. The execution of Nathaniel Woods was unjust and unfair in many ways and highlights the severe problems within the Alabama Justice system.

In the case of Nathaniel Woods, it is important to note that he was convicted of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three police officers. The man who confessed to the actual act of shooting and killing the police officers is Kerry Spencer. In fact, Spencer confessed to acting alone in the crime that landed both him and Woods on the Alabama death row. He testified this in his own trial and claimed to be acting in self-defense, highlighting that the shooting was not planned. During his confession, Spencer very clearly stated that Woods ran away from the scene and could not be considered an accomplice to the act. According to his former appellate attorney, Spencer may never be executed as Woods was. When Spencer was convicted in 2005, the jury that found him guilty recommended that he receive life in prison without parole, instead of the death penalty. A 2017 Alabama law that removed the power of the judge to override non-unanimous jury verdicts in the cases of the death penalty effectively protects Spencer. So why, when Spencer confessed to the deaths of the police officers, is Woods dead? A primary factor is that Wood’s jury never heard Spencer’s claim of self-defense. An even larger factor is that the Alabama death penalty laws are inherently flawed and unjust.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Source: 187th Fighter Wing. Creative Commons.

The jury that convicted Woods reached a non-unanimous verdict of 10-2 recommending the death penalty. Alabama is one of two states in the United States that allows a non-unanimous verdict to result in the execution of a defendant. The death penalty laws within Alabama have been seriously criticized by civil right leaders and have been called unjust under the accusation that the criminal courts are unfairly biased against minorities. Despite Woods’ family and a few high profile figures including Martin Luther King III, the son of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Kim Kardashian West contending that much of the evidence supported Woods’ innocence, neither Governor Kay Ivey nor the Supreme Court intervened on Woods’ behalf.

Woods’ case is unfortunately one in a long line of executions that highlights the many problems with the Alabama justice system. Before its abolishment in 2017, Alabama allowed judges to over-ride a unanimous jury in order to impose death sentences. While this is a step in the right direction, Alabama was the last state in the United States to make this change. Alabama has had 67 executions and 9 exonerations since 1976. This means that for every seven people executed, one has been exonerated. As of today, at least 107 of the death sentences in Alabama have been reversed and resulted in a reduced sentence or an exoneration. These statistics leave Alabama with a very high error rate. After 2010, Alabama has executed a series of defendants with questionable convictions: two defendants suffering from mental illness and three defendants whose judges over-rode the jury’s decision for life imprisonment in favor of the death penalty. Alabama also has no statewide public defender system and does not pay appointed attorneys enough, resulting in a lacking quality of counsel. Until 1999, capital trial attorneys were paid $40 per hour for work in-court and $20 an hour for work out-court. The out-court work compensation could only reach $1000. During this time, almost half of the current death row convictions occurred. Now, capital trial attorneys are paid $70 per hour with a cap of $2500, a rate that is noticeably below market rates. The lack of funding has resulted in a reduced quality of work and inadequate representation for defendants who are fighting for their lives.

Alabama state sign
Alabama state sign. Source: Shannon McGee, Creative Commons.

In January of 2020, the governor of Alabama appointed a panel to issue recommendations to address the problems of the Alabama prison system reported in a 2019 report released by the Justice Department. The report identifies the major problems with Alabama’s prison system. These problems included prisoners being assaulted and tortured on a routine basis with the knowledge and participation of the prison guards. Such abuse clearly violates the Eighth Amendment that protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It also included problems within prisons such as overcrowding, understaffing, a large presence of weapons and drugs, corruption, and raw sewage. Many corrections officers have been arrested and charged with crimes such as bribery and drug trafficking. In February of 2019 a judge found that the conditions for mentally ill patients within the prison system were unconstitutional. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 29 of 28,000 people died of preventable deaths in the Alabama prison system, a big contrast to the national average of prison homicides of seven per 100,000 prisoners. The recommendations provided by the state appointed panel have been called “common-sense” and do not address the more serious problems. If these problems are not fixed, the prison system will be operated by an outside party.

Prison
Bordeaux Prison. Source: photographymontreal, Creative Commons.

There are a significant number of problems within Alabama’s death penalty policy and within the Alabama prison system in general. There is no need to prove that a defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime within the state. There is insufficient protection for mentally ill defendants. And the Supreme Court is the only thing within Alabama that is preventing the executions of defendants with an IQ of below 70. Changing and reforming the broken Alabama death penalty system will be a long process, during which there is a possibility for many more innocent people to die. The decision to end the judicial override system in 2017 was a step in the right direction but not nearly far enough. Since then, more changes have been made to protect the already broken system, such as the 2018 decision to use nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation, as a backup execution method. There is hope that the execution of Nathaniel Woods would push Alabama to make serious changes. However, this hope has not yet come to fruition. Some changes that would reform the system instead of protecting it would include: requiring a unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death, requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime, and acknowledge and end the racial bias that contributes to the death penalty practices. Ultimately, even after these changes are made, the most positive change to the Alabama death penalty system is to eradicate it once and for all.